Uncomfortable Reading

I recently heard a preacher say that he had often heard testimonies from people who said something like: “My life was in a complete mess, then Jesus came into it and put it all together”. He said his own testimony would be more like: “My life was quite neatly sorted, then Jesus came into it and messed it up”.

It’s true that many people come to Christian faith from a sense of failure or chaos in their lives – a history of crime, addiction, abusive relationships, or homelessness. Often with the help of Christians who have shown them love and told them of the love of Christ, they have a spiritual experience that sets them on the path to a new life. But what does the Christian message mean for those of us whose life is reasonably comfortable and in good order? What should it mean? Is it just the icing on the cake? Does it just add a spiritual dimension and the promise of heaven when we die? The gospel is described as “good news for the poor”, but is it good news for those who are not poor?

It is something of a cliché to hold up the Sermon on the Mount as the classic pattern of a good life and a good society. It starts (Matt 5) with comforting and innocuous statements like “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted …”, and so on. But it soon becomes much more disturbing:

“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” (Matt 5:39-40). Is that sensible?

“Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matt 5:42). Anyone who has ever passed a beggar on the street should feel uncomfortable with that.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth … but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt 6:19-20). Does that mean I shouldn’t have a savings account?

The last part of that sixth chapter of Matthew (vs 25-34) seems to speak on three different levels. There is simple common sense: “can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?… do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Then there is a comforting message of God’s care for us: “Look at the birds of the air… consider the lilies of the field… if God clothes the grass of the field… will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?” Then comes the promise: “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Does this mean that if I try to live a good life God will provide for my needs? Probably not quite that. “Righteousness” in the Bible does not usually mean just “being good” in the sense of living a decent, honest life. It is another word for justice. When Jesus says, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”, he doesn’t just mean that those who eagerly long to be good will have their desire satisfied: he is referring to oppressed people desperate for justice. And that is probably what “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” means – it calls us to make the active pursuit of justice the centre of our lives.

In three of the Gospels (Matt 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30) we find the story of a young man who came to Jesus and asked what he should do to have eternal life. He was rather like many idealistic young people today who have grown up taking for granted the comforts of a middle-class life and are looking for a higher level of spirituality. He had lived a decent, law-abiding life since childhood, but felt somehow that there should be something more. The answer Jesus gave was, “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  The man walked away sadly. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God”.

Matthew also gives us that vivid picture of judgement, when the nations will be separated like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The King will call those on his right side to possess the Kingdom, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  When they are surprised at this, he says to them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  Then he will point out to those on his left that they did none of these things, and the story concludes: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”. (Matt 25:31-46)

No Christian who has ever passed by a homeless person on the pavement, or not bothered to give to a famine relief appeal, can feel comfortable with sayings like this.

Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount (sometimes called “the Sermon on the Plain”) is even more challenging. Instead of “the poor in spirit” it talks directly of the poor:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:20-26)

Luke (16:19-26) also gives us the misnamed story of “Dives and Lazarus” – misnamed, because the rich man does not have a name. The Latin Bible was virtually the only one used in Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages, and “dives” is simply the Latin word for “rich”. This story is unique among the parables in that one of the characters has a name. At some stage, preachers came to think the other character ought to have a name too. This is not only a mistranslation, but it misses an important point. Jesus, in giving a name to the poor man and not to the rich man, is deliberately subverting the values of society. In real life the rich man would have a well-known and respected name, but the poor man sitting outside his door would just be “that beggar”. In telling this story Jesus is making the point that, well known as the rich man might be, the poor man too was a person known and important to God.

When the rich man dies, he is buried – a privilege accorded to rich and “important” people. The beggar’s body would probably just be tossed into a common grave. But beyond death their status is reversed. The poor man is taken up by the angels to sit with Abraham in heaven, but the rich man is suffering in hell. Why is he being punished? Nothing is said about any sin he has committed – he is in hell simply because he was rich and allowed the man sitting at his door to be destitute.

Today, in a world where the richer nations – which happen to be mostly those of a Christian tradition – enjoy luxury, security, and high standards of health care while millions in other countries are undernourished if not dying of starvation, we are surely ignoring the message of the Bible and the essence of Christian faith if we do not take these words of Jesus and the prophets seriously. The question is: do we, and can we?

Why the Trinity?

I don't know whether the Athanasian Creed is recited very much these days. It begins:
‘Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith unless every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost…’

Then it goes on for a very long time, and ends with:

‘… This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.’

For me, this prompts at least three questions:

  • What does it mean?
  • How does he know?
  • What kind of God would condemn us to hell for not believing a complicated doctrine?

The Holy Trinity is often presented as a test, to let the right people in and keep the wrong people out. This is quite contrary to the whole spirit of Jesus.

So, what is the use of the doctrine of the Trinity?

It’s not clearly stated in the Bible, but there were reasons for the early church to develop it.

In essence, I believe it is an attempt to recognise the fact that the whole idea of God is not a simple, straight-forward one. God is not a man with a beard sitting on a throne up in the sky, listening to all our prayers and giving us what we ask for if we deserve it.

The Bible is the record of people’s experience of God over a period of more than 1000 years. The people who wrote it were Jews, and then Christians, who shared a common tradition. That tradition was one of dialogue, questioning, discussion, and often disagreement, as they tried to work out the meaning of their experience. Sometimes they got it wrong, or only partially got it. Nobody ever gets it completely right.

The ancestors of the Jews had some remarkable experiences of a God who came to their rescue. They were slaves in Egypt and by what seemed a miraculous series of events they were set free and found a land they could live in.

They had other experiences too, when their backs were to the wall. They unexpectedly won battles against overwhelming powerful armies attacking them. They were convinced that there was a powerful God who was on their side and had chosen them as his own people.

Many of us today have experienced God in that way:

  • times when we were in danger and perhaps miraculously saved
  • times when we have faced problems and felt we were being guided through them
  • times when we have been brought low by illness, bereavement, or betrayal and have found that we are still alive and life is worthwhile
  • Times when we have prayed and our prayers have been answered

That is what God means to many people. But we experience God in other ways too.

The Jewish people who wrote the Bible, as well as many other people the world over, were moved to wonder at the greatness and the beauty of the world around them.

This is an experience we all have and the reason why so many of us love the 8th Psalm:

‘When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’

The person who wrote those words knew far less about the universe than we do. They thought the sky was just a bit further up than the highest mountains. But how much more wonderful it is for us, who know that those stars are other suns and worlds billions of miles away, and the universe is vast beyond anything that we can imagine.

It makes us feel very small, and yet at the same time, like the writer of the Psalm, we know we have remarkable powers and abilities, and with the Psalmist we can say of human beings:

‘You have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands. You have put all things under their feet.

We today are more than ever aware of the power we human beings have. We have power to change the whole planet for better or for worse.

The problem is that most of the time we seem to change it for the worse. Life is full of meanness and selfishness, fear and greed, war and cruelty. Even when we try to do good we so often seem to fail.

But there is one person we look to who seems to be so different from all others. We read the stories of Jesus and we listen to his teaching and we think, ‘If only the world could be like that!’ He is the one who gives us inspiration and hope.

The people who first met Jesus were Jewish people proud of the fact of believing in one God and one alone. And yet in meeting Jesus they felt that they were directly meeting God – the God of love. And so they gave him titles like ‘the Son of God’, ‘the Image of the invisible God’, ‘the Word of God made flesh’.

Jesus is the practical, physical way in which we have experienced God here in this world.

But there is much more to the experience of God than that. We experience God as love: the love of our friends, partners, children, even a kind stranger we meet only once. And not only the love we get from other people, but the love we give them.

When two or three people are sharing deeply together, supporting one another, helping one another, listening to one another, God is there. Somehow that experience is God.

In a sense the question is not ‘Is there a God?’, but ‘What is the meaning of everything we experience?’

The idea that there is a God up there ruling the world from above is crude and simple. When people say they don’t believe in God I feel like saying ‘I don’t think I believe in the God you don’t believe in either!’

I think part of what the Holy Spirit means is that God is in us as well as outside us. We don’t need to look outside for evidence of God we can find God by looking deeply within ourselves.

The Bible talks of God showing himself in different ways one common expression is ‘the Angel of the Lord’.

The word ‘angel’ means a messenger. Sometimes in the Bible story someone sees a vision of a divine being, but sometimes the angel is a human being, and sometimes no one is quite sure.

God appeared to Abraham in the form of three men. Abraham took them for passing strangers and invited them in for a meal. But as the story goes on it gets more confusing. Is it three men, or one? Is it an angel, or is it God, or God and two angels?

In the story of the Resurrection, when the women go to the tomb and find it empty, what do they see?

In Mark, a young man in a white robe. In Matthew, an angel. In Luke, two men. In John, two angels.

Most of us don’t ee heavenly angels, but we have all had the experience of some stranger helping us in a special way or teaching us something. We can say that person for us at that moment is ‘the Angel of the Lord’.

The Bible talks about other aspects of God too.

The Spirit of God features in the Old Testament in different ways:

  • At the beginning of creation, ‘wind of God’ sweeps over the waters
  • God instructs Moses to appoint a man called Bezalel to design the Tabernacle, because I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft’ (Exodus 31:1-5)
  • When Samson was threatened by a lion, the spirit of the LORD rushed on him, and he tore the lion apart with his bare hands’. On another occasion his enemies tied him, but ‘the spirit of the LORD rushed upon him’, and he broke the ropes and went on to kill 1000 men (Judges 14:6; 15:14). Nothing very holy about that spirit!
  • Then the day of Pentecost fulfils the prophecy of Joel 2:28-29, where the Spirit of God is the Spirit of prophecy.

In Proverbs, ‘Wisdom’ is described as a woman accompanying God at the creation and present in the world now, calling people to follow her.

So, already in the Old Testament there is nothing strange about God showing his different aspects in different ways.

When we say that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but one God, we are naming three of these aspects, but the main point is that we are expressing the belief that God is not just a Person up there or out there somewhere, but a deep, complex and mysterious reality.

The question is: how do you experience God? Think about it, and then ask: how do I respond to that experience? How do I show it in my life?

This brings us to probably the most revolutionary insight of all. The New Testament goes as far as to say that in a sense we are God. We are the body of Christ. The world knows God not just through the story of Jesus or the Bible but through us and the things we do.

The Wisdom of God, the Image of God, the Angel of the Lord, the Word of God made flesh is now made flesh in us. What a challenge!

‘Christ is the Answer’ – What is the Question?

The predominant question in traditional Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, for centuries past has been ‘How can I escape the wrath of a righteous God?’ In mediaeval Christendom it was an unquestioned belief that humanity was fallen as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve and was under the judgement of God and destined for hell. Christ was the answer because he had sacrificed his life to release us from that judgement. The official teaching of most churches is still within this framework, and many traditional believers continue to assert it.

The cultural background to this kind of Christianity was to a large extent the mediaeval feudal system. It was a strict class system: the seriousness of an offence was measured by the status of the person against whom it was committed. If a peasant committed some offence against the lord of the manor, it was punished more severely than if he had committed it against someone of his own class. To offend against a member of the higher aristocracy was even more serious. An offence against the king was high treason, punishable by death. The logic of this was that even the slightest offence against Almighty God was of infinite seriousness, calling for eternal punishment. Only the death of a completely sinless person could atone for it, and Christ, the Son of God, was that person. It was against this background that everyone, in Western Christendom at least, lived with a sense of being under the wrath of a righteous God. As it is expressed in the Book of Common Prayer funeral service: ‘In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O LORD, who for our sins art justly displeased?’ 

The problem with preaching this message today is that people do not live with a sense of being under the wrath of God. Evangelical preachers find that the gospel, the ‘good news’, must begin with the bad news: people must be persuaded of the reality of judgement before they can respond to the good news of the free offer of salvation to those who accept Christ as their Saviour. Moreover, most people today, probably even most Christians, do not believe in eternal hell. Some conservative evangelicals, quite logically, say that if you don’t believe in hell there is no point in preaching the gospel! But culture has moved on, and the Christ of this kind of preaching is no longer an answer to the question people are asking.

Another question often asked is: ‘How can I be saved from the mess my life is in?’. I remember from childhood a song often sung in prayer meetings:

‘I was once far away from the Saviour,
As vile as a sinner could be,
And I wondered if Christ the Redeemer
Could save a poor sinner like me.’

There were many others in the same vein, mostly dating from the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution uprooted many people from the simple pious life of the village church and planted them into the slums of the industrial towns. Many succumbed to the temptations of drink and gambling, and they fell into a life of poverty, crime, homelessness, or prostitution. Organisations like the Salvation Army and the various ‘City Missions’ addressed this problem and preached Christ as the Saviour who could offer forgiveness and a new life to the most degraded of human beings. The message is still relevant in many places today, especially to people who are living with homelessness, broken relationships or addiction. It has changed the lives of many. However, the majority of us today are reasonably comfortable with our life and do not feel that desperate need of regeneration.

For people in an affluent society the big question that often emerges is: ‘How can I have an authentic and meaningful life?’ There are innumerable books and groups offering people a better life – health, success, self-development or a deeper spirituality. Often it is Buddhism, or some ancient indigenous culture, an oriental guru or a Californian life coach that is offered as the answer rather than Christ. Even evangelicals now often try to interest people in the gospel by offering it as an answer to the question of the meaning of life – we work, we build a career and a family, we retire, grow old and die – but what does it all mean?

In classical antiquity there was a different question. Many people were obsessed with immortality: the question was ‘Is there life after death’? The early Fathers often show a view of Christ that saw him as primarily coming into the world to save human beings from the curse of mortality. Today, for some reason this question does not seem to be quite so important. It is true that many bereaved people still ask: ‘Will I meet my loved one again?’, and they see the gospel of resurrection as the answer to that question. However, for more and more people today this is not a central concern. Our scientific mindset makes it much more difficult to believe that the person can survive the death of the body, and we are more content to accept death as an inevitable reality and even an ecological necessity. I remember as a young man being quite shocked when a fellow ministerial student told me he had met Christians who did not believe in life after death. I couldn’t understand how any Christian could say that. Surely, I thought, for Christians the belief that this life is a preparation for heaven is fundamental. Today, I know more and more Christians who do not believe in personal survival after death. I have doubts about it myself, but it does not in any way negate my Christian faith. Rather than try to imagine heaven, I am content with the idea that we come from God and we die into God. Time is inherent in our perception of the world, but God is beyond time, and my short life is a unique moment in God’s eternity. In that sense it is an eternal reality, and I am agnostic as to what exactly that means.

All these different questions have some echo in the New Testament. The apostle Paul and others talk of humanity being under the judgement of God and of how Jesus on the cross became the atonement or propitiation for our sins. There is much debate today about quite what they – especially Paul – meant by this, and whether it is legitimate to read into it everything the later church has made of it. However, one of the central themes of the New Testament writers’ interpretation of the death of Jesus was certainly that of sacrifice, and there was some connexion between sacrifice and atonement for sin.

The idea that Christ is the answer to how an individual’s life can be turned around is certainly an important theme in the Gospels. The healing miracles of Jesus were nearly always for the benefit of people who were outsiders in some way – lepers, disabled people thought to be suffering for their sins, people possessed by demons, ‘unclean’ women, and so on – and their effect was to restore them to an accepted place in the family of God. There are examples of moral regeneration too, such as tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus.

The situation of a prosperous upstanding member of society looking for some further meaning in life seems to be reflected in the story of the rich young man who came to Jesus with the question ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ It is a rare example of the expression ‘eternal life’ in the Synoptic Gospels, but in the Gospel of John that is a major theme. It appears to mean both a life of fuller meaning and fulfilment and the promise of survival after death. It comes to a climax in the story of the raising of Lazarus and the saying of Jesus: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, shall live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die’ (John 11:25-26). Here it seems that, in part at least, the interpretation of the meaning of Jesus is addressing the question of immortality that was so important in Hellenistic culture.

In the context of Jesus’ own ministry, undoubtedly the main question to which he was seen to be the answer was: ‘How can Israel be set free?’ This has roots in much of the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Scriptures and is a major theme in the Synoptic Gospels. It is especially emphasised in Luke’s Gospel. At the beginning we have Mary, in the Magnificat, singing of how God ‘has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever’ (Luke 1:54-55). Zechariah’s song of praise (Luke 1:68-79) is all about God looking favourably on his people and redeeming them, remembering his covenant with Abraham ‘to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.’ Simeon is described as ‘righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel’ (Luke 2: 25). At the end of the Gospel, the disciples on the road to Emmaus lament: ‘we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’ (Luke 24:21). When the disciples talked with Jesus after the resurrection the question they asked was ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?’ (Acts 1:6)

This, for the Jewish people at that time, was the burning question, and according to the book of Acts the apostles preached Christ as the answer to it. The astonishing, paradoxical good news was that Jesus of Nazareth, who had been condemned as a criminal and died a cursed death, was alive and was the true Messiah. This was not an answer people expected. Jesus didn’t lead an armed revolt against the Roman Empire and set the Jewish people free politically. He was, according to Matthew’s Gospel (1:21), the one who came ‘to save his people from their sins’. In his preaching he challenged the Jewish people to find their true liberation by seeking the kingdom of God and so becoming the people of God they were meant to be. The early Christian preachers soon came to realise that this possibility was for the whole world and not just for the Jewish people. It was the promise of a new creation, the breaking down of all class and racial distinctions and the reshaping of humanity in the image of God.

Today we are closer to that situation. For many of us the burning question is: ‘How can we human beings be saved from ourselves?’ Gross inequality and poverty, wars and terrorism, the increasing number of refugees escaping from conflict while the reaction to them threatens more conflict, the ever-present threat of nuclear warfare, the rapid deterioration of the planetary environment and the depressing lack of decisive action to correct it, all build up to a feeling that human life, at least in any civilised form, is severely threatened, if not doomed.

Many traditional believers have given up on any solution to this situation. The only hope, they believe, is that the faithful will be rescued from this temporal world and live forever in heaven. I do not believe that this is the central message of the biblical faith. The vision of the Hebrew prophets, culminating in the message and story of Christ, is of God’s will being done on earth. Only a fundamental change in consciousness and culture can save humanity from the threat it faces today. The challenge for Christians is not to persuade everybody else to accept the Christian religion. It is, in a deeper sense, to show that the way of Christ, however expressed, is the answer to the all-important question of today, and to have the faith to believe we can all discover it and practise it before it is too late.

Less Doctrine, More Bible Please!

Throughout my childhood and youth I never learned the Apostles Creed, nor was I taught a catechism. I was a young adult before I even heard of such things. This is because I was brought up as a Baptist. Baptists do not recite a creed as part of their order of worship. While some of their churches have produced a ‘confession of faith’ or a ‘doctrinal basis’, Baptists in general avoid creeds and acquire their beliefs through sermons based on biblical texts.

In this they follow the tradition of Luther, who believed that God speaks to us not by the formal teachings of a church but by the living word of the Bible. Luther was a peasant, a man of strong emotions and intense faith, who could often be crude and (for example in his extreme Anti-Semitism) disastrously prejudiced. Yet, with all his faults, he inspired large numbers of people to find a new living relationship with God.

The other great founder of Protestantism, Calvin, was very different. He was a lawyer. While Luther produced polemic writings that expressed his passions and his love for the Bible, Calvin gave us his Institutes, a masterly, tightly argued systematic theology.

Doctrine is logical, consistent, and cold. It is a way of dominating people and establishing order and discipline. Its logic can lead to quite cruel conclusions. Strict Calvinists argue that because God is the almighty Ruler of the universe everything that happens must be the will of God, and because God knows everything God must have decided it before the beginning of time. If people reject the message of salvation, it must be because God planned that it should be so. This logic, combined with a literal interpretation of the Bible, leads to the abhorrent conclusion that God deliberately creates millions of people in order to punish them eternally in hell, and they can do nothing about it. If we argue that a loving God would never do this, the answer is that we human beings are so utterly depraved that we are incapable of understanding the mysterious love of God!

The Bible doesn’t concern itself with that kind of argument. Apart from the letters of Paul and parts of the Gospel of John, there is very little doctrinal exposition in the Bible. Much of it consists of stories, poetry, and the passionate outbursts of prophets. While doctrine speaks from the head, the Bible speaks from the heart and from life. A story doesn’t tell you what to believe – it simply makes you think. Doctrines have one meaning that closes off any alternative: poetry opens up the imagination. The words of the prophets (and Jesus was one of them) are not authoritative statements of eternal truth. They are expressions of anger and love, or exciting visions of a new world.

It is somewhat ironic that those who talk of having a high view of the Bible as ‘the Word of God’ tend to be led much more by doctrine than by the Bible. This is because doctrine tries to take over the Bible as well. Having asserted that the Bible is the word of God, people approach it with a theory of what the word of God should be. If God is perfect and infallible, then his word must be perfect and infallible. Whatever is written in the Bible must be true, because God says it and God does not lie. So the Bible is taken into the captivity of theory and doctrine. Doctrine decides what parts of the Bible people read. There are huge parts out there that are ignored because they are not necessary to establish the doctrines.

Doctrine is neat and tidy and unambiguous, But the Bible is an untidy collection of different kinds of writing. It is messy, inconsistent and often very ambiguous. It doesn’t come from scholars and philosophers sitting in their study and thinking – it comes from the raw experience of people struggling for faith in whatever circumstances they find themselves. If this is the word of God, then God clearly speaks through a variety of people. The so-called ‘contradictions’ are actually disagreements, and God somehow speaks through them too.

The Bible is full of ‘minority reports’. The Book of Exodus says that God visits the sins of the fathers on the children and grandchildren: Ezekiel disagrees. Some of the Psalms say that the Temple in Jerusalem is the house of God and can never be destroyed: Jeremiah disagrees, and so does Jesus. The historical books of the Old Testament are full of stories that illustrate how God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked: Job puts a big question mark against that idea. Deuteronomy says that no Moabite can be counted among the holy people, even to the tenth generation: Ruth points out that King David’s great-grandmother was a Moabite. Nahum gloats over the destruction of the wicked city of Nineveh: Jonah points out that God cares for the people of Nineveh too. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, keeps saying, ‘You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …’.

Doctrine is deadly serious. I don’t think there are any jokes in Calvin’s Institutes! But there is humour in the Bible. We miss it by reading it too solemnly. We see the rather dull prophet Balaam being contradicted by his talking donkey. We see the prophet making fun of the idol-worshippers who take a log home, put half of it on the fire and carve the other half into an image and worship it as a god. We hear Jesus talking about the hypocrites who wash the outside of the cup and leave the inside dirty, or the man who offers to take a splinter out of another person’s eye when he has a great plank in his own. A friend who did a lot of business with Jewish people once told me that Christians often misinterpret the Bible because they don’t understand the Jewish sense of humour!

Once we start reading the Bible without the blinkers of imposed doctrine, we can begin to see what a wonderful and fascinating book it is. We can be entertained, amused, encouraged, challenged and inspired by it. It can even get us questioning some of the doctrines we have been told it teaches. So out with boring doctrine and let’s have more of the Bible!

Jesus – Good News or Bad?

Religion, or spirituality, can take many different forms. It can be a matter of exalted feelings, of mystical communion with God or a sense of unity with the whole of being. It can be a journey of discovery, of ‘finding oneself’. For some people it can mean basking in the love of whatever God they worship – some spiritual writing sounds very much like love poetry. For some, on the other hand, religion is hardly emotional at all. It is a set of firmly held doctrines, logically argued, or of strictly observed rules. Sometimes spirituality is centred on ‘signs and wonders’, or spectacular acts of sacrifice, while for many ordinary people it is just a matter of conforming to the religion one has been taught and trusting in God’s care and providence.

The Judaeo-Christian tradition as we find it in the Bible contains something of all these elements, but its major theme is down-to-earth and uncompromisingly ethical. The prophet Micah puts it very simply:

‘With what shall I come before the Lord …? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’

Our stories of encounter with God, or the ways we describe the place of God in our lives, often concentrate on blessing. We talk of God strengthening and supporting us, saving us, uplifting us, and so on. But in the Bible stories the purpose for which God comes into people’s lives is almost always to call them to do something. God told Abraham to leave his father’s house and country and go to another land. Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush was a call to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrew slaves. For Jonah it was a command to go and preach in the city of Nineveh. Jesus called disciples to follow him because there was a job to do: ‘Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’. The ‘conversion’ of Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road was actually a call to him to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ before he even believed in it.

There were two sides to the ministry of Jesus. When he was befriending the outcasts, healing the sick. and teaching the multitudes, he was expressing a love that was unconditional and completely inclusive. But to those he called to be his disciples, and even more so to those who volunteered to be his disciples, he was demanding – and how demanding!

‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord! Lord!” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’

The Gospels tell a story of a young man who came to Jesus and asked him, ‘Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ This was a very earnest and spiritual young man. Mark’s Gospel makes a point of saying that Jesus ‘looking at him, loved him’. He was already living a good life, but he had a longing for something more, a higher quality of life. Jesus taught him two lessons. First, he said, ‘Why do you call me good?’ In other words, don’t think you can get eternal life by worshipping me! That’s a lesson that many people today still need to learn. But then came a harder lesson. A deeper, higher life is not just an add-on. There’s a cost to it: ‘Go, sell what you have, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ And the man walked away sad – it was too much for him.

At this year’s Baptist Assembly, the main guest speaker was Shane Claiborne, who has a very down-to-earth and inclusive ministry in a deprived area of Philadelphia. He said something that would be shocking to many people. Converts giving their testimony, he said, often say something like: ‘My life was in a terrible mess, but then I met Jesus and he put it all together for me’. Then he said his own testimony was: ‘My life was all tied neatly together – then I met Jesus and he messed it up!’

Jesus said his gospel was ‘good news to the poor’. But to those who are not poor – which means most of us – it is uncomfortable news.

And yet …

The good news is that God’s love is unconditional, even for the rich! The Sermon on the Mount begins with ‘Blessed …’. It is not a strict, judgmental law. It is an invitation to a fuller, more blessed life. Jesus often talked of the kingdom of heaven as a feast. But perhaps we need to learn that it is the poor who can teach us how to enjoy it.

Faith: A Journey of Discovery

New thinking and the questioning of inherited beliefs is not an aberration from Christianity, nor a sign of heresy or disloyalty. It is deeply embedded in the nature of the Judaeo-Christian heritage itself. From the very beginning faith has evolved through questioning and argument.

At an early stage in the history of their faith Jewish people began to move away from the old idea that their God had chosen them for special favour irrespective of how they behaved. The stories of the patriarchs in the Book of Genesis – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their families – show them getting up to all kinds of things we would consider reprehensible – deceit, trickery and theft – and prospering by them just because they were specially favoured by their God. In time this changed. People began to see that God was not an arbitrary, capricious despot, but a God who was consistent, fair, and just. God expected standards of behaviour from his people. They must not worship another god or make idols. They must not murder, commit adultery, steal, deceive, or plot against their neighbours.

In the book of Deuteronomy (ch 28), the conditions of God’s relationship with his people are set out at length. If the nation serves God faithfully and obeys the commandments, it will be blessed in every way. The people will live safely in their land, enjoy rich crops and abundant harvests, good health, long life, and many children. They will be defended from all their enemies and win all their battles. But if they turn away from God and act unjustly, they will face disaster on all sides.

The history of Israel in the books of Samuel and Kings are a long illustration of this principle. When there was a good king who reigned justly and encouraged people in the pure worship of God, there was peace and prosperity, but when there was a king who disobeyed the commandments, there was famine, disease, natural disasters, defeat in war, and all kinds of misfortune.

Sometimes the historians had difficulty in explaining certain parts of the history. King Josiah, who instituted a thorough reform of religious practice and was a good and faithful king, was killed in battle at the age of 39. The historian explains this by saying that the nation was still being punished for the terrible sins of his grandfather Manasseh (2 Kings 23:25-30). As an old scripture said, God visits the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 20:5). But there was one prophet, Ezekiel, who disagreed with this. He was addressing the Jewish people when they had lost their freedom, their holy city, and their land to the Babylonians. They were in a depressed and defeatist mood, believing they were being punished because of the sins of their forefathers. Ezekiel offered them hope by asserting that God’s judgment does not go down through the generations – every individual is rewarded or punished according to their own behaviour (Ezek 18).

But some people realised that this too is not always true. Many of the Psalms and other writings drive home the message that good people are rewarded with long life, health, prosperity, and large families. The wicked may appear to prosper for a time, but they will eventually suffer for their sins. The Book of Job is a passionate argument against this. It presents the hypothetical situation of a man of impeccable piety and virtue who loses all his property, his family, and then his health. His friends (‘Job’s comforters’) preach to him the conventional message that suffering is a punishment for wrong-doing, and that his only hope is to confess his sins and pray for forgiveness. Job refuses to believe that he has deserved what he is suffering. He insists on arguing his case with God. In chapters of profound poetry, the whole question of the working out of God’s justice in human life is pondered. There is no ultimate answer, but the interesting thing is that in the end God commends Job for having the honesty and courage to argue with him, and rebukes Job’s friends for having the audacity to try to defend God’s justice with shallow arguments.

The belief that the Jews are God’s chosen people also undergoes some questioning and development within the Bible. It was probably at a time when Jewish leaders were becoming increasingly strict in maintaining the purity of the ‘holy people’ that the little Book of Ruth was written. One of ancient Israel’s close neighbours was the nation of Moab. There was a long history of feud between the two peoples, which was enshrined within the Scriptures in a commandment saying that no Moabite should be admitted to the congregation of the Lord even to the tenth generation (Deuteronomy 23:3). Ruth tells the story of a Moabite woman who remained faithful to her Jewish mother-in-law and was rewarded by marriage to a prosperous Jewish farmer. The story ends with a little genealogy showing that the great King David was a great-grandson of that marriage!

Before that time, the prophet Amos had already questioned what it meant to be the chosen people. He asserts that being chosen does not mean God is always on their side – it means that God will judge them more strictly than others (Amos 3:2). In another place he suggests that they are no more special than any other nation anyway. They may boast about God giving them the land of Canaan, but did not the same God give other nations their lands (Amos 9:7)?

The Jews’ long experience of oppression and suffering generated a deep change in their perception of the meaning of being chosen. Even when they were at their best and most faithful to God, they suffered. A prophet at the time of the Babylonian exile came to see this as part of what it meant to be chosen. They were somehow fulfilling a purpose in the world by the very fact of their undeserved suffering (Isaiah 53). This became a central part of the way Christians saw the whole story of Jesus, the crucified Messiah who embodies the nature and destiny of the holy people. In the New Testament we find the firm belief that God is above all a loving God, and the daring insight that real love shows itself in weakness more than in coercive power: ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’ (1 Corinthians 1:25).

When sceptics point out that the Bible contradicts itself. they are really missing the point. The contradictions are part of the essential nature of the Bible, and of the whole history of Jewish and Christian faith. Faith in God is an ongoing journey of discovery, constantly dealing with the unexpected, interpreting experience, and discovering new truth. As God says to Moses, ‘I will be who I will be’.

Where Do We Start?

If we want to embark on the journey of finding our own faith, the things we believe in rather than what we have been taught, where do we begin? Ironically, the best answer is probably with what we have been taught. None of us is a blank sheet. We don’t start from scratch. We must start where we are. We do not choose our parents, our place of birth, our nationality, or the religious tradition we inherit. These things shape who we are, and no matter how far life moves us on from them, they are inevitably our starting point.

I was born into the Christian tradition. Both my parents were active members of a Baptist chapel in Wales. I was baptised by total immersion at the age of twelve. With all my experience of working in cooperation with other churches and other faiths, I am still a Baptist minister. But my life experience and thinking have made me a very questioning and unconventional Christian. If I had been born into a different culture, I might well have been a Jew or a Muslim, a Hindu or a Buddhist, but I like to think that, whatever faith I was born into, I would still have become an open-minded, questioning and unconventional member of that faith community.

I have great respect for other faiths and have been inspired by some of their insights. When I attend a synagogue, I have a warm feeling of being in my own faith’s ancestral home. When I talk with humanists, I feel there is very little difference between us. Nevertheless, I am still happy to call myself a Christian and have never considered converting to another faith or belief. This is not because I am certain that the traditional version of Christianity is true, but because it corresponds to the way I see the world, or – to be bluntly honest – the way I want to see the world.

Christianity is often described as an ‘historical’ faith. That is, it is essentially a story. It is the story of a God who created the world and created human beings in God’s own image. It goes on to tell how this God worked in a special way through the long history of the Jewish people, and how their understanding of God’s ways developed through their experience. It tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish teacher who declared and demonstrated a radically new way of life, who died and rose again, and in whom sin and death will be defeated and the image of God will be restored in a new heaven and a new earth. It claims that God has been supremely revealed not in spoken or written words but in this man, the Word made flesh.

Is this story true? Some parts of it of course are history that few if any would dispute. Other parts are legendary or mythological. Some of its central parts are an expression of faith that can never be proved or disproved. But whether strictly ‘true’ or not, I think it is the best story in the world, the story that is most true to the depths of human experience. I find that the more I try to live as if it is true the better it works.

In a sense, faith means believing in spite of the evidence and then watching the evidence change. In the story of Moses at the burning bush, Moses asks God to tell him his name. God’s answer is ‘I am who I am’. Even that simple statement can have more than one meaning. It could be a simple refusal to answer the question. It could suggest that God is the mystery that can never be defined or even named. In the Hebrew language there is no clear distinction between the present and future tenses, and so the statement can just as well mean ‘I will be who I will be’. This too can have more than one meaning. It could mean ‘I am free to be who I want to be’, or ‘you will keep discovering who I am’.

This is an invitation to the journey of faith. It also suggests that new thinking is not an aberration from Christianity, a sign of heresy or disloyalty. It is deeply embedded in the nature of the Judaeo-Christian faith itself. We are not chained by history but invited to keep on discovering God in new ways. We start where we are, but the destination is yet to be known.

The Dangers of Certainty

I have been reading Unfollow (riverrun 2019), the book in which Megan Phelps-Roper tells the story of her childhood and youth in the Westboro Baptist Church, the notorious ‘God Hates Fags’ church.  She paints a vivid picture of the ugliness of that church’s activities and the way it has torn itself apart by its own totalitarian attitudes. At the same time she talks of the comfort and security of belonging to that close knit family, the sense of complete certainty and rightness, then goes on to describe her own growing doubts, her eventual decision to break away from it, the pain of complete estrangement from her family, and the hard struggle to find a new way of living and of working out her own beliefs when all her experience had been of unquestioning obedience.

While acknowledging that her experience was extreme, she sees a disturbing reflection of it in many aspects of society today: ‘the division of the world into Us and Them; the vilification of compromise; the knee-jerk expulsion of insiders who violate group orthodoxy; and the demonization of outsiders … a growing insistence that opposing views must be silenced … At the heart of this insistence lie several false assumptions, including a sentiment that Westboro members would readily recognise: We have nothing to learn from these people.

The writer sees that ‘no-platforming’ is counter-productive: ‘While the desire to shield people from these ideas is well-intentioned and completely understandable, I can’t help but see it as a fundamentally flawed strategy, one that ignores the practicalities of human nature.’ More than ever in the age of the Internet, we cannot reasonably expect to halt the spread of a bad idea. What we can do is to foster a culture in which we can articulate sound arguments against it. None of us (even the most liberal of us) is infallible: we grow as people and as a society by honestly grappling with challenges to our world-view, no matter how certain we may feel about it.

I’m sure there are many issues on which we need to take note of these thoughts. The greater the certainty that we are right, and the stronger the passion we feel, the more important it is to listen and to think.

Finding Your Own Faith

I remember once in my student days meeting a fellow-student who was wearing a turban and said he was a Sikh. I had never met a Sikh before, but when I started asking questions, his response was, ‘I’m afraid I don’t know much about my religion’. I was too polite to say it, but I thought, ‘What an odd thing to say! How can you have a religion you don’t know much about?’

Of course, we were coming from different definitions of religion. To him, religion was a cultural identity, a heritage he had only partially taken possession of. To me, in my modern Western, individualistic culture, religion meant one’s own personal belief. If I don’t know what I believe, who does? I could say I am the world’s leading expert on my religion! Today, I would define religion in a different way. I see it as a tradition or an institution, very much in the sense in which that Sikh saw it. When talking personally I would be more inclined to use the word ‘faith’.

More and more people today are turning away from organised dogmatic religion and embracing a faith or a worldview which is truly their own. We are seeing the end of the age of dogma and hierarchy. Traditionally, people have believed what their preachers and church leaders have taught them – or, more often than is admitted, pretended to believe it. In past centuries this was backed up by legislation. If you were born in Catholic Europe, you had to be a Catholic. If you were born in a Protestant country, you had to be a Protestant. If you denied the religion of the country you lived in, you were in danger of being burned at the stake. This was just as true of other religions, with varying forms of punishment. In fact, there are still countries where people can be imprisoned or even executed for turning away from the prescribed religion.

In countries like Britain and the United States today faith is seen as an individual free choice, but even so it is only very recently that blasphemy laws and censorship have ceased to be enforced. And, whether backed up legally or not, there is still pressure to conform to the religion in which we were brought up, or the predominant religion of the community we belong to.

This is changing. More and more people today identify themselves as being of ‘no religion’, or ‘spiritual but not religious’. They are working out their own beliefs about the meaning of life and the universe. Theology may sound a grand word, something religious scholars do in their studies, but in a sense any of us who are trying to break free from what we think we ought to believe and set out on a journey to discover what we really believe are doing theology.

Not everyone takes this journey. Many people let the platitudes of their religion flow over their heads without taking them seriously.  Most at some time or other question the faith they have been taught. They are often too polite to express their doubts openly in case the religious authorities label them as heretics. But all religion is based on human experience, and if your experience makes you feel that something is true, meaningful, and important, your feeling is valid.

As a Christian minister, I have often said that I don’t have the answers to questions about God, life or the universe. The only difference between me and the people in the pews is that I have read more books about the answers other people have suggested, but nobody can guarantee that they have the ‘correct’ answer. We are all just human beings trying to understand our human experience. To do this, we need to practise honesty. Sometimes, too, we need the courage to break away both from what is traditional and from what is fashionable, and dare to say what is really on our hearts.

A Gospel to Proclaim?

Probably the main cause of the decline in organised religion in Western culture today is the lack of passionate conviction. Christian believers live good lives in accordance with their principles. Many of them are active in their concern about the problems of the world. Most charities, and many campaigns for peace and justice locally and globally, would be much weaker if it were not for the participation of Christian church members. But Christians share these concerns with many other people of goodwill who do not necessarily profess a religious faith. Christians with a social conscience are part of the wider community of liberal humanitarian people doing what they can to build a better world. What they are lacking is a passionate belief in the Christian gospel and an enthusiasm to propagate it.

In the past, faith was literally a matter of life and death. The bitter arguments between Catholics and Protestants, Anglicans and Nonconformists, Baptists and those who baptised infants, happened because people believed there was a heaven and a hell after death, and having the right beliefs was the condition of going to one and avoiding the other. Many of our Nonconformist chapels were built by poor people at their own expense as places for preaching what they were convinced was the one true gospel, studying the Bible, and praying earnestly for the salvation of others.

Later generations were brought up in the beliefs of their denomination and carried on the tradition out of a sense of duty to their parents, but with rather less passion. Going to church or chapel became something you did because it was part of the culture – it was the thing to do on Sundays.

In the twentieth century the struggle of the working classes against exploitation – often resisted by church leaders – and the traumatic experience of the First World War created a new generation with a different outlook on the world and often a cynical attitude towards the churches and the Christian faith. At the same time, new developments like train and motor travel, the cinema, television and so on meant that there were many things more attractive than going to church on Sunday.

And so those who still go to church regularly often see themselves as struggling to hold onto a dying tradition. They are reluctant to talk too much about their faith with people outside the churches because they are all too aware of the bad image of Christianity generated by the faults and mistakes of the past. Also, in the more multi-cultural society of today they want to show respect for other people’s faith rather than push Christianity as the only truth.

There are minority churches that flourish and grow, both here and even more in other parts of the world. They are mostly charismatic, passionate, unashamedly evangelistic, and certain of their faith. However, their biblical fundamentalism is a problem for most people in today’s educated society, and their strictly conservative moral attitudes, especially on sexuality, are exclusive, judgmental, and often downright cruel.

There are of course many churches that do not preach fundamentalism, that are at ease with science and rational thinking, that allow questions to be asked; churches that welcome all kinds of people without expecting them to give up their culture or their sexuality; churches that see very clearly the social and political implications of the teaching of Jesus. Some of these churches openly declare themselves as ‘inclusive’ or ‘liberal’, but many do not. In many if not most of the mainline traditional churches, people have liberal attitudes in practice but avoid being too outspoken for fear of causing offence to ‘simple’ believers. Often there has been a conspiracy of silence between the clergy and the laity. Ministers hold back from saying things they think might upset their congregation, and meanwhile members of the congregation are afraid to question things in case they upset the minister! In many churches the only interaction between clergy and laity is that the minister stands in the pulpit and preaches while the congregation sits quietly and listens. Often the sort of forum in which questions can be asked does not exist, and people keep their doubts to themselves. In this kind of situation is it any wonder that churches are ineffective and unattractive?

Even when liberals come out into the open and express themselves, the things they say tend mostly to be negative and apologetic. People say (or imply) things like:

‘I’m a Christian, but not that kind of Christian.’

‘I’m afraid I don’t believe everything in the Bible the way you do, but I still think it’s the word of God.’

‘I’m not sure I share your faith, but I hope you can recognise me as a fellow-Christian.’

Many ‘progressive’ theological writers seem to be constantly engaged in a battle with fundamentalism. Many of them in fact grew up in a conservative environment, both theologically and politically, and have turned away from it. This tends to make the whole discourse an argument within the Christian community rather than a declaration to the world. Their books are read mostly by Christians who are looking for a fresh expression of the faith they already have. It is sometimes tempting to think that liberal or progressive Christianity is parasitic on traditional Christianity: if it wasn’t for the conservative churches, what would liberals or progressives have to say, and who would listen to them?

There are of course Christians who make a big impression on the world through their actions – people like Dr Martin Luther King, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, and the many Christian churches that have a ministry that makes a real difference to their communities. In these, the heart of the Christian message is being proclaimed in action. But should it not be possible to spell it out in words as well?

I want to explore the question of how we can declare a relevant, positive, exciting faith that just forgets the things we don’t believe and declares the good news we do believe. Watch this space! And in the meantime, suggestions are welcome.